Head Start is a preschool education program for low-income children and families that helps children learn social skills and adjust to school settings. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services funds the broad educational, health, nutrition and parent involvement services provided by Head Start. The program began in 1965 and expanded in 1981. By 2005, over 22 million children had participated, at a current rate of one million per year. The goals of the program include strengthening family relationships and enhancing children’s future academic outcomes.
In January of 2013, President Obama proposed working with states to provide preschool to every child. He argued that preschool education can promote better future academic performance and lives for low- and middle-income kids. He also made the point that quality preschool education will save the government money later on, “…by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Obama’s budget request for 2014 (proposed in April 2013) would increase funding for the H.H.S., naming Head Start as one of the priorities, and would include $1.6 billion in increased funding for Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. Under this plan, millions more children would be able to attend Head Start. Parents and teachers were very excited about the prospects for more schools, better training, higher teacher wages, and of course, more kids in schools, learning how to learn. But at this time, no official budget has been approved by Congress.
In March of 2013, the across-the-board spending cuts known as the “sequester” slashed Head Start’s budget by $406 million, which means that 60-70,000 children will be kicked out of the program this year. Some schools had to shorten the school year by two weeks and lay off teachers. This has had an immediate impact on families. Some parents had to quit their jobs because child care is no longer available. And the message that is being sent is: preschool education, health and the well-being of families are at the bottom of the list of priorities for American society.
Who is saying this? Some people believe that all “social entitlement” programs should be eliminated. They point to research that claims Head Start’s initial positive effects begin to fade away by second and third grade. Some lawmakers and opinionators have grabbed onto this “Head Start fade” phenomenon as a valid reason to cut the program completely. But they are not acknowledging the fact that many Head Start students wind up in low-income, disadvantaged elementary schools where, without continued effective interventions, the positive effects of Head Start can fade away. Head Start opponents also point to the Head Start Impact Study, which compared how well Head Start students did compared with students in other preschool programs. Small to moderate academic advances were reported in both groups. The problem with this study is that it did not include a control group of children who were not in any preschool at all. How well would they perform compared to the Head Start kids? From this study, we don’t know.
What we do know is that there is an extensive body of research that supports the work being done at Head Start schools and the positive outcomes for the students. The following citations are just some of the results:
Head Start promotes overall health and students are more likely to be immunized and get dental care than non-students. Head Start students begin elementary school with better social skills and they are more than non-Head Starters ready to learn. As school goes on, kids who were in Head Start are more motivated to do well and have less behavior problems and referrals than their peers. Long-term effects have been proven too, such as a higher rate of high school graduation rates, better overall health, lower teen pregnancy rates, and less percentage of criminal charges.
It turns out that for every $1 spent on Head Start education, society saves $9 in costs for grade repeating, welfare, criminal costs, special education, etc.
These research studies prove that Head Start helps kids do better in school and in their futures. And there’s so much anecdotal information from people who say that early education changed their lives or their children’s lives. We will ultimately save money and make our society stronger. So let’s give children a chance to succeed in life – by supporting Head Start and early childhood education.
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